The Nation of Shopkeepers

The Man of Destiny - George Bernard Shaw

It isn't normal that I would go back to a book so soon after I have published a review of it online, however for some reason thoughts continued to swim around my head, especially in relation to the last couple of pages where we have a reasonably long discourse from Napoleon in relation to the character of England. While historically, when Napoleon referred to England as being a nation of shopkeepers, no doubt he was painting the nation as being weak militarily and that all they were interested in was running their shops. I suspect he also thought that by simply cutting off their ability to trade would cripple them significantly. Obviously he was wrong, considering he lost his navy at the battle of Trafalgar, and was eventually beaten by them twice in the twilight of his reign.


The climax of the play comes down to a harsh criticism of English Colonialism in Shaw's time, and of course Shaw does this by putting it into the mouth of Napoleon. It is a very clever way of doing it because by putting such criticism into the mouth of England's traditional enemy the audience can chose to listen to it and think about it, or simply write it off as typical French propaganda. Mind you, by the time of this play the traditional alliances had shifted to the point that England and France were no longer fighting against each other, but fighting with each other. Still, the Napoleonic Wars were still fresh in the mind of the English that Napoleon was seen (and in many ways is still seen) as the enemy of Britain.


It is interesting how Shaw has turned this idea of the nation of shopkeepers around. Where Napoleon originally made the statement to suggest that it was a weakness of England, Shaw paints this idea as being not so much one of England's strengths, but rather that which paints England as little more than another imperialist power. As a background Shaw creates the idea of three segments to society – the low, the middle, and the high. Shaw suggested that the low and the high (being the aristocracy and the peasantry) are not guided by morality, namely because the peasantry are a crude lot that pay no attention, while the aristocracy consider themselves to be above morality. It is the middle class that Shaw points out as the dangerous class as they are the ones that are guided by morality.


It is interesting that Shaw makes this observation because I read a similar thing in [author: Slazoj Zizek]'s [book: First a Tragedy, then a Farce] where he also talks about three elements to society: the working class, the middle class, and the ruling class. Like Shaw's example, the ruling class has always been threatened by the middle class namely because they are educated. The working class has always been controllable, namely because while they may be educated, they generally spend their lives drinking, gambling, and are easily distracted. It is the middle class that needs to be controlled because that is the class that questions what is thrown at them. In the modern age it is seen as the modern urban professional, the ones sitting in their inner city cafes drinking latte's and discussing literature, while the working class tends to sit in the pubs watching football, playing pool, and then going home to continue drinking.


Yet Shaw indicates that it is the English who are the dangerous ones, namely because they use this ideal of merchantilism to push their agenda. Being a shopkeeper is not seen as a bad occupation, and opening up areas for trade is not seen in a similar light as raising armies and sending them across borders to rape and pillage the land. While in the past England had sent troops onto the continent for the purpose of conquest this had not happened since the Hundred Years War. Ever since they were pushed out of the continent England's focus on expansion, after bringing the British Islands together under the monarchy, had been to the rest of the world. Their wars of conquest had not been on the continent, but rather in the colonies.


Yet Shaw indicates that these wars of expansion were thinly disguised under the auspices of expanding trade and of spreading religion. As one writer had put it, the English would first send out the missionaries, and once the missionaries had established themselves, then would come the colonist, and finally the army would arrive to protect the colonies. Mind you, it wasn't as if the government intentionally sent out the missionaries, the churches would generally do that of their own accord. However they were still British subjects on foreign soil, and if the missionaries landed up in trouble, then the troops wouldn't be far behind.


It is also interesting how he paints England as a land of contrasts, similar to Orwell's doublespeak. England claims that there is no slavery on their shores, yet children would be working horrendous hours in appalling conditions in the factories. People would be locked up on the simplest of pretexts, and then set across the ocean as labourers to establish new colonies. The British army would invade other lands, sometimes quite brutally, to push their trade agenda. If a market refused to trade with the merchants, then the navy would go in to force them to open up. This new idea of conquest has been taken up in the 20th Century by the United States, where we had them sending warships into the Japanese Harbour in the late 19th Century, as well as troops into the Middle East in an attempt to create new markets and access new resources. What Shaw is suggesting is that the term 'A Nation of Shopkeepers' is not a term of mockery, or a reference to weakness, but rather a new form of imperialism that he hidden by a veil of respectability.